Animal Intelligence: Dolphins, Dogs & Elephants Sometimes Know More than Primates

Animal researchers have discovered in recent years that thought processes in animals are not a matter of how closely related those critters are to humans. Animals can be intelligent even if they are not primates, and dolphins make an excellent example: although dolphin brains are very different from human brains, it is well-known that they are intelligent animals. Moreover, they have some human characteristics as well.

Dolphin brains have completely different wiring compared to primates, especially in the neocortex, where higher functions such as reasoning and conscious thought occur. Dolphins are very distantly related to humans, but in terms of intelligence, social behavior and communications, some researchers believe they are as close to humans as apes and monkeys are, if not closer.

"They understand concepts like zero, abstract concepts. They do everything that chimpanzees do and bonobos can do," said Lori Marino, an Emory University neuroscientist who specializes in dolphin research, as cited by the Associated Press (AP). "The fact is that they are so different from us and so much like us at the same time."

Dolphin brains look nothing like human brains, explained Marino, yet "the more you learn about them, the more you realize that they do have the capacity and characteristics that we think of when we think of a person."

According to Marino, dolphins recognize themselves in the mirror, and they also have a sense of social identity. Not only do these mammals know who they are, but they also know who, where, and what their groups are. Moreover, they are capable of interacting and comprehending the health and feelings of other dolphins incredibly fast.

The intelligence in various animals "is not a linear thing," said Brian Hare, a researcher at Duke University, who studies bonobos (one of man's closest relatives) and dogs. "Think of it like a toolbox," said the researcher. "Some species have an amazing hammer. Some species have an amazing screwdriver."

A primary tool for dogs, Hare said, is their obsessive observation of humans and their incredible ability to understand human communication. Dogs, for instance, comprehend human pointing so well that they understand it regardless of whether it is done with a hand or a foot. Chimps do not share this ability, added Hare.

Lastly, elephants are also more intelligent than you might think. They work together, they empathize, and they help each other in need. According to Josh Plotnik, head of elephant research at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand, elephants can learn to cooperate much quicker than other animals more closely related to humans. In a cooperation game, in which animals have to collaborate to pull opposite ends of a rope at the same time in order to get food, elephants learned to do that much quicker than chimps. They even score better than monkeys when it comes to empathy and rescue, added Plotnik. The researcher said in the wild he has seen elephants stop and work together to rescue another elephant that had fallen in a pit. "There is something in the environment, in the evolution of this species that is unique," said Plotnik. 

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